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Foreign wings may fly future president

Pentagon begins search for new Air Force One

For nearly two decades, Boeing Co.’s massive 747 jumbo jet has served as the president’s flying White House, awing world leaders and projecting America’s might wherever it landed.

But in the next decade, “United States of America” could end up being emblazoned on an even bigger plane that has been a symbol of European unity and pride.

The 747 Air Force One is slated to be replaced, and the new plane is likely to be stuffed with top-secret gee-whiz gadgetry, including countermeasures to thwart missile attacks, and aerial refueling capabilities so it can fly for days without landing.

That’s on top of comforts that are likely to make even the world’s richest jet setters envious.

It is unlikely that President-elect Barack Obama will get a chance to fly in a new Air Force One since the replacement isn’t slated to begin flying until 2016 at the earliest. It takes as long as three years just to modify the plane so it can withstand attacks and enable the president to command from the sky.

But for the first time, the Pentagon has raised the prospect that the replacement for the most photographed and most advanced passenger jet in the world could come from a firm overseas.

In a move that is certain to raise the ire of the “buy American” crowd in Congress, the Air Force has requested information from aircraft makers, including Airbus of Europe, to replace the aging 747 jet. Boeing has built presidential jets since the early 1960s.

There is a precedent. Barriers against foreign competition collapsed several years ago when the Pentagon selected a consortium of U.S., Italian and British companies to build replacements for the president’s Marine One helicopter fleet.

For its part, Boeing says it has no intention of losing its grip on building presidential jets. A Boeing official said it was too early to say what kind of plane it would propose as a replacement, although analysts are speculating that the contender could be the new and larger version of the 747 dubbed the 747-8 Intercontinental. The passenger version of the new plane is expected to enter service in 2011.

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